Visitors to the scattering of restored and surviving plantations across North Carolina might well find their assumptions about antebellum opulence drastically challenged. In an era when glass-paned windows were a sign of luxury, plantation owners lived relatively simply and were more likely than not to work the land themselves, along with their slaves. Tours of the state's plantation houses offer insight not only into the history of slavery but also into life in pre-Industrial Revolution America.
Just over 10 miles from Durham, Stagville was once the largest plantation in the state and one of the biggest plantations in the South, with 900 slaves working 30,000 acres. Visitors today can spot details that reveal much about the original Bennehan family. They lived in a simple wooden-plank house but filled its windows with panes imported from England. They also built a two-story slave quarters raised on brick noggings, which hints at a greater level of concern for the welfare of slaves than was common at the time. Most poignant at Stagville, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, is the family cemetery, where a few lonely English-style box tombs in the shade of ancient Osage orange trees suggest unfulfilled plans for a lasting dynasty.
One of the largest plantations in the Upper South, Somerset Place was an active plantation for 80 years until the end of the Civil War, when it fell slowly into disrepair. Thanks to an exhaustive restoration, visitors can now tour the 31-acre complex and get a feel for the frenetic activity of what was once a thriving, self-sufficient community. The brick hearths in the smokehouse, barrels of molasses and herbs by the kitchen house and ruins of a simple hospital hint at the endless routines of plantation life, while the period furniture of the 14-room Collins Family mansion and neat shrubbery of its formal garden suggest an attempt to live elegantly amid the relentless industry. There is no admission fee to tour the plantation, which is 30 miles from Plymouth. The visitor center is in the Colony House, formerly the plantation schoolhouse.
Just 4 miles west of Windsor, the Hope Plantation property contains two homes that illustrate the contrasting fortunes of their originators. Hope Mansion, built by a former governor, remains one of the most ambitious examples of Federal and Georgian architectural styles, with its imposing Palladian columns atop a high brick basement and a rare Chinese Chippendale balustrade ringing its double portico. By contrast, the King-Bazemore House has one of the state’s few remaining examples of simple “hall and parlor” design, the traditional plan of the settler period, complemented by restored 18th century furnishings. Guided tours of both homes take place daily. Minutes away from Uptown Charlotte, Rosedale Plantation has a grand mansion surrounded by ancient maple trees and rare Chinese parasol trees, set on just 8.5 acres. One of the finest examples of Federal period architecture, the house was built in 1815 and was known locally as “Frew’s Folly” after the opulence of its original owner. Visitors can take a one-hour tour of the 13-room house.
Latta Plantation, 12 miles northwest of Charlotte, is a well-maintained example of a smaller plantation, where 34 slaves produced cotton. Although the family home is a simple pine plank and brick chimney affair, artifacts such as full-length windows, mirrors and clocks inside reveal the relative wealth of the original residents. Purchased by a group of local historians, the site now operates as a museum and working farm, with over 35 special events each year, from battle re-enactments to Regency tea parties. Visitors can see rare livestock breeds up close and learn how short-staple cotton is produced, as well as follow a range of interactive tours that re-create plantation life, from candle dipping and fire-starting to the making of corn-husk dolls.
Liberty Hall in Kenansville is a good example of what ABC News describes as North Carolina’s modesty, from an era shortly before the Civil War when three-quarters of Southern families held no slaves or worked alongside them on plantations. Built in the 1800s, the Greek Revival plantation house has a simple clapboard exterior but features original walnut furniture from the Kenan family, co-founders of the University of North Carolina, in its carefully preserved rooms. Visitors can tour every day except Monday.